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Elon Musk

SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk poses on the red carpet of the Axel Springer Award ceremony on December 1, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo: Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images)

700 US Billionaires Got $1.7 Trillion Richer During Two Years of Pandemic

A new analysis finds that the 704 billionaires in the U.S. now own more wealth than the bottom half of Americans—roughly 165 million people.

Jake Johnson

During the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic, the collective wealth of billionaires in the United States grew by a staggering $1.7 trillion as Covid-19 killed millions of people across the globe and threw entire nations into turmoil, worsening extreme poverty, hunger, and other preexisting crises.

"We can't accept an economy and tax code that allows billionaires to hoard trillions while working families struggle."

Released Friday to coincide with the second anniversary of the World Health Organization's official pandemic declaration for Covid-19, the latest billionaire fortune analysis by Americans for Tax Fairness (ATF) finds that the 704 billionaires in the U.S. now own more combined wealth than the 165 million people in the bottom half of the country's wealth distribution.

"For billionaires, it's been two years of raking in the riches, while for most families it's been two years of fear, frustration, and financial worry," ATF executive director Frank Clemente said in a statement.

The new analysis stresses that billionaires' pandemic windfall "may never be taxed" because it consists of unrealized capital gains, which are not subject to taxation under current U.S. law. As one possible solution, ATF voices support for Sen. Ron Wyden's (D-Ore.) proposed Billionaires Income Tax, legislation that would impose an annual levy on ultra-wealthy Americans' unrealized gains from tradable assets such as stocks.

"The rising asset values billionaires have enjoyed over the past two years are not taxable unless the assets are sold," ATF explains. "But billionaires don't need to sell assets to benefit from their increased value: they can live off money borrowed at cheap rates secured against their rising fortunes. And when all those wealth gains are passed along to the next generation, they entirely disappear for tax purposes."

While Democrats in Congress considered a tax on billionaires as part of their Build Back Better package, that legislation was tanked by a handful of corporate Democrats—including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)—and a unified Republican caucus.

"Why should our economic system allow billionaires to hoard wealth unchecked, letting almost all of it go tax-free?"

Earlier this month, Manchin floated a further watered-down version of the Build Back Better proposal that calls for tax reforms targeting the wealthy and corporations, but it's unclear whether the West Virginia Democrat would accept a tax on billionaires.

"Working families pay what they owe in taxes each paycheck. Billionaires generally pay little or nothing in taxes on these extraordinary gains in wealth," Clemente said Friday. "Congress should enact a Billionaires Income Tax to directly tax these wealth gains as income each year, so that billionaires begin to pay their fair share of taxes. Such a reform is not yet part of President Biden's investment and tax legislation now being revised by Congress, but it should be."

According to ATF's new analysis, the biggest billionaire winners during the coronavirus pandemic's first two years were:

  • Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who saw his net worth skyrocket by $209 billion;
  • Google co-founder Larry Page, whose fortune grew by $63 billion; and
  • Google co-founder Sergey Brin, whose wealth increased by $60 billion.

"Not one of the 15 richest U.S. billionaires gained less than $10 billion," ATF noted on Twitter, pointing out that during the same two-year period 80 million Americans were infected by Covid-19 and nearly a million were killed by the virus.

"We can't accept an economy and tax code that allows billionaires to hoard trillions while working families struggle to afford healthcare, childcare, education, and housing," the group added. "It's wrong, and we can do better."

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